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Weekly Mishmash: September 5-11

Hustle & Flow (2005). Stuck in a rut, a Memphis pimp (Terrence Howard) enlists the help of family and friends to cut his own Hip-Hop records. Despite Howard’s Oscar nom and a lot of critical acclaim, I’ve avoided this one for a long time. Perhaps I believed it would be grungy and violent, but the film actually wound up very absorbing, well-made and even somewhat sweet. The film rambles a bit too much in the first half, including a ludicrous scene in which the Oscar winning song “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” goes from lyrics scrawled on a notepad to completed song in about five minutes. Whatever realism that scene lacks is made up for the winning ways in which the characters overcome the stereotypes their Southern, lower-class circumstances have forced them into. Terrence Howard is excellent, but I also enjoyed Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls as the men employed to help him cut his music. The film also has a wealth of great female roles; best of the bunch is Taryn Manning as the sole remaining working “ho” in Howard’s employ. Her character is just as desperate to escape a dead end life as Howard’s, and the couple of scenes she has to express that frustration are touchingly delivered.
Pattern for Smartness (1948). A selection from Kino’s How To Be A Woman set of vintage educational shorts, this valuable effort came courtesy of the Simplicity pattern company. Will Betty use her slammin’ sewing skills to take Johnny’s basketball team out of the red? Watch and learn!

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2007). A wonderful choice from my fab spouse, Christopher. From the title I was expecting a dry, documentary like account of some dead lady from World War II; in reality it’s a powerful and beautifully acted portrait of a woman who was the very model of standing up for one’s own convictions. Sophie Scholl was a student who took part in the White Rose underground anti-Fascist movement in WWII Germany. While secretly distributing leaflets with her brother, Hans, and another classmate, she was arrested, interrogated and tried by the SS in a humiliating display meant to defer other subversives. This is an absorbing film with an intense performance by actress Julia Jentsch as Sophie. The film sags a bit during the interrogation scenes, with Jentsch and fellow actor Gerald Alexander Held in a quiet, overplayed sparring that verges into My Nazi Interrogation with André territory. It rebounds beautifully, however, in the scenes following with Scholl touchingly discussing her personal life with a fellow prisoner (played by Johanna Gastdorf, also good). Great film. I must also mention actor Fabian Hinrichs as Sophie’s brother Hans — no relation, but how could someone with that rocking name not be great?


Stallion Road (1947). A big week in the homestead, as we sadly got rid of Turner Classic Movies. I’ll always love TCM, but when we exchanged our wallet-sucking DirecTV satellite service for a streamlined TiVo that picks up local HD channels and streamed Netflix, it was a no-brainer. We will definitely get our classic movie fix via DVDs and other sources, but in the meantime I needed some decent TCM fare to close out (something better than the wretched Jeanne Eagels, at least). This genial horsey drama looked like an intriguing enough choice. Starring Ronald Reagan, Alexis Smith and Zachary Scott, this was standard Warner Bros. melodrama of its time — typical, but professionally done and watchable. Set in contemporary California ranch land, this film goes into familiar soapy territory with Smith as the confident lady rancher who has both studly vet Reagan and visiting novelist Scott wanting to get into her jodhpurs. In the meantime we get treated to a horse jumping competition, an improbable restaurant brawl and an anthrax scare. Reagan is his usual boring self (“white bread” are the two most apt words for the man), but I enjoyed Smith and it was great to see Scott cast as something besides a loathsome cad. A nice farewell to TCM, which really needs to get into the 21st century and start a paid, Netflix-like streaming service. I’d do that in a heartbeat!
Towelhead (2007). I had high hopes for this provocative drama scripted and directed by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball — this despite the film getting mixed to bad reviews when it came out. Based on Alicia Erian’s autobiographical novel, this film concerns a 13 year old Lebanese-American girl (Summer Bishil, very good in a demanding role) who is blossoming sexually while dealing with quarreling, recently divorced parents, ignorant classmates, and a predatory next door neighbor played by Aaron Eckhart. Topping it all off is the fact that it takes place in the 1990-91 buildup to the first Gulf War — in suburban Texas! This is a well intentioned and nicely produced film with notable work by Bishil, Eckhart and Peter Macdissi (memorable as Claire’s slimy art professor in Six Feet Under) as Bishil’s menacing dad. I also really dug the film’s production design, which seems to capture the mundanities of early ’90s suburbia in a subtle and effective way (hair scrunchies, bulky sweaters, etc.). The main problem I had, and this is a huge one, was the film’s lack of sympathetic characters. Bishil strikes a proper numbed out note, but she doesn’t have enough depth to carry the more despicable people in support. It makes the squeamish nature of the sex scenes more uncomfortable than they ought to be. While I don’t have a problem with the subject matter (in fact, teen sexuality isn’t explored enough in a mature way — on film or otherwise), the abhorrent characters make the whole thing seem more exploitative than provocative. It really says something that when Toni Collette’s hippie-ish neighbor shows up to aid Bishil, she comes across like a shrill busybody. An object lesson in “not the intended message” filmmaking.

Weekly Mishmash: November 1-7

American Experience: The Civilian Conservation Corps (PBS). I’m a bit of an American Experience junkie, seeking it out despite our local PBS affiliate running the documentary series on a strange, sporadic schedule. Lately, they’ve been having seasons based on one central theme — last year the subject was presidents (yawn), and this year focuses on the 1930s. The program on the Civilian Conservation Corps was a typically fascinating outing, giving context to what was an overlooked facet of Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The only problem I had was with my local PBS station running this widescreen program on their analog feed with the right and left edges cut off. Having it this way results in a lot of screen text being lopped off and a generally sloppy, unprofessional look. I have no idea why they don’t run the show letterboxed — are they afraid of grumpy old viewers complaining about the black bars? Our station does this with American Experience, Frontline and several other shows, making the issue just annoying enough for me to skip giving them money during all their never-ending pledge breaks.
The Crash (1931). This obscure melodrama made up part of Turner Classic Movie’s monthlong Great Depression film festival. I recorded it mostly for star Ruth Chatterton. “Fussy” would be the best word to describe the stage-trained Miss Chatterton’s acting style, and in that respect she pulls out all the stops in this domestic drama in which she plays a pampered socialite reacting to the devastating 1929 stock market crash. The way the film deals with the consequences of greed is interesting, but it’s hampered by stagey direction and lots of talky scenes that don’t add anything noteworthy to the proceedings. The only positive things I gleaned from the film is that TCM’s print was gorgeously preserved, and Chatterton has a nice rapport with her leading man, dull George Brent (they were married at the time).
Sinéad O’Connor — I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. $1.50 thrift store buy. Who doesn’t remember when Sinéad O’Connor unexpectedly topped the pop charts with “Nothing Compares 2 U”? The very idea of a feisty Irish chick with a chip on her shoulder and nothing on her scalp having a #1 hit is mind boggling, but it did happen in the Spring of 1990. I hadn’t heard I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got since the CD got stolen from my collection around 1993, so hearing it again was a special treat. Aside from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Jump in the River,” the album is made up of introspective songs that hold up surprisingly well (maybe not so much the overlong a cappella title track, but that’s easily skipped in the end). O’Connor still seems like a bundle of contradictions (how can a feminist folkie also worship misogynistic rappers?), but her voice was startlingly fresh for someone so young. If only she lived up to the promise of her first two albums.
Ordinary People (1980). It had been a few decades since I’d last seen this one. Still good, and Mary Tyler Moore makes for a potent Ice Queen of a mother (it’s hard to remember how different that casting was in 1980). Although it didn’t deserve stealing the Best Picture Oscar away from Raging Bull, I was taken aback by how raw and emotional a movie this still is.
Tokyo Zombie (2005). Titling a movie with something awesome like Tokyo Zombie creates unrealistic expectations in me. I was expecting a trashy good time, but this one fell short in all areas. In near future Tokyo, on working-class misfit is training the other to be a judo fighter. The two are just fooling around when it is revealed that the giant mountain of trash that people have been dumping human corpses on is creating standard-issue zombies. Just when the “fleeing from zombies” theme is established, the film takes a bizarre turn five years into the future with the richest surviving humans living in a huge apartment complex/sanctuary — with the remaining non-zombies serving as slaves and entertainment. I think the filmmakers were trying for a crazy, uninhibited feel similar to Kung Fu Hustle here, but they bit off more undead flesh than they could chew. Mostly it was overlong and shockingly chintzy — homophobic, too.